The New Realities of Special Needs Students
Special education is everyone's challenge. Here's what you need to know.
Fact: 6.8 million students, ages 6 to 21, are served by IDEA.
Fact: 5 percent of eighth graders with disabilities scored “at or above proficient” on the 2003 NAEP Reading Assessment.
Fact: 22 percent of 10- to 12-year-olds take some form of psychotropic medication.
Fact: The average yearly cost to educate a student with a disability is $12,639.
Fact: 51 percent of schools modify the curriculum “to a large extent” to meet special needs.
Getting students with special needs the services they require is a crucial task for every administrator. As the landscape shifts, the requirements of your job are changing as well. What will it take to make it all work? From new intervention models to empowered parents, here are six musts for next year.
New Reality 1: Training is for everyone. Including you. With more students with disabilities assigned to general classrooms and new research emerging, training is more critical than ever. IDEA 2004 recognizes the importance of professional development—and it’s not just for teachers.
“If you really want teachers to accept a new model, the administrator has to be in on the training. You don’t just send the teachers off,” says Mel Levine, founder of All Kinds of Minds, a nonprofit institute dedicated to helping kids with learning differences succeed. “The involvement of the school leaders is the real litmus test as to whether or not innovation will take hold.”
Getting the latest research into your schools is critical, says Rick Lavoie, an educational consultant and author from Barnstable, Massachusetts. “Ninety percent of what we know about ADD we’ve learned in the past five years. If you’ve not gone to a workshop since 2000, you are way behind the eight ball.” He adds that quality in-service training delivered by people within the school is best. That way, staff can ask questions immediately as new practices are implemented.
We need a more coordinated effort at the federal level to provide technical assistance and training for general and special education teachers, says Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association. “We are finding that training varies across the country,” he says. “Lack of resources for professional development hampers the ability of teachers to cope.”
New Reality 2: Take a hard look at diversity in special needs. Although the numbers vary by state, schools continue to overidentify students with diverse backgrounds as disabled. (At www.nccrest.org, you can see how your state ranks.) Minorities are overrepresented in categories in which school personnel conduct more subjective assessments—such as learning disabilities and emotional behavior disorders—as compared with disabilities having a straightforward medical diagnosis, such as a visual impairment, says Janette Klingner, associate professor of bilingual special education in the educational equity and cultural diversity program at the University of Colorado–Boulder.
“Some teachers just want to get kids out of the classroom,” says Klingner. “Teachers have felt they have no option than to refer students to special education to get them some individual help.”
Klingner says more support for struggling students in general classrooms will help to allay the problem, as will taking into account the home language in assessments and having bilingual professionals review cases. The level of collaboration that administrators promote among teachers and how the special education referral process is carried out also have a big impact, she adds.
New Reality 3: Consider a new intervention model. There will be more buzz in the coming year about the response-to-intervention model (RtI). With this approach, student progress is monitored intensely from day one to help identify students with learning challenges.
Texas is using the RtI model with reading throughout the state. The three-tiered reading model is gaining momentum, says Kathy Clayton, director of the Division of IDEA Coordination with the Texas Education Agency in Austin. In Tier One, clear criteria are used to monitor student progress. If a student is not showing progress, extra help is given in Tier Two and combined with what the child is already receiving in the classroom. If the student improves, he may drop back to the first tier. If a student continues to struggle, he would move to Tier Three, which provides more intensive assistance and a possible referral to special education.
If teachers follow the model closely, students who truly have a need for services will emerge, says Clayton. And students won’t be assessed for special education eligibility for the wrong reasons. “We are now looking at how the state can move ahead with a more concerted effort at using this model in general education and ultimately in special education,” says Clayton.
Her advice for administrators: Study the RtI model and include parents, teachers (general education and special education), community members, and others in the conversation to decide if it is right for your school.
New Reality 4: Give a critical eye to tests and labels. People are becoming disillusioned with the eligibility criteria for special education, says Levine. “One of the crazy things in special education is the belief that everything that is important can be tested,” he says. But children are complex, and different conditions may be impeding them at different stages.
For example, a child may not fully understand what he is reading and falls behind. It may be that he is a passive processor of information and the teachers don’t know it. “Kids can fall through the cracks,” says Levine. “Some things you can’t test well.” Levine sees special education teachers serving more as consultants who can help regular teachers focus on learning issues in the classroom.
Once the child is in special education, the emphasis should not be on labeling the child but on labeling the phenomena, says Levine. Students should also receive counseling so they can understand their strengths and weaknesses and express their needs to teachers.
New Reality 5: Be a savvy consumer. The marketing push for educational software is more intense than ever, prompting the need for administrators to make caveat emptor their mantra. “We still see technology as being magical, but we really need to be critical consumers,” says Kyle Higgins, a former editor of the Journal of Special Education Technology and a professor of special education at the University of Nevada–Las Vegas.
Rather than being wooed by salespeople and making a technology purchasing decision at a conference in isolation, Higgins advises administrators to consult with special education teachers, assistive technology experts, and parents.
If a software maker claims that a product is perfect for kids with a certain disability, ask to see the evidence. Has the company involved kids with disabilities in the formative and summative evaluations? Too often, administrators take the word of the software publishers rather than asking probing questions, says Higgins. “Ask to see the data,” she says.
New Reality 6: Partner with parents. There is a new level of intensity and expertise among parents of students with disabilities that can cause tension with teachers unless the principal steps up. “I have never seen so many school systems racked with difficulties between home and school,” says consultant Lavoie. Some principals, he says, feel the need to take the side of a teacher or parent. “You always need to take the side of the child.”
David Riley, executive director of the Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative in Newton, Massachusetts, says that parents are an untapped resource. “We need to leverage the resources of Mom or Dad,” he says. Too often, schools have teachers in authority roles, talking down to parents. Instead, says Riley, schools need to welcome parent involvement. “One of the reasons we have gained so much for young people, including IDEA, is because of parent advocacy,” he adds.
With all these new realities on the horizon, what are the next steps for administrators? While the final touches to IDEA 2004 are still being developed (see page 44), experts suggest taking stock of your school’s inclusion programs. Review assessment measures and ensure that students are in the least restrictive environment and have adequate supports, aides, and services. Assess teacher credentials and look for in-service training opportunities. Once IDEA 2004 is finalized, be sure to communicate with parents about how the changes will affect their children.
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